Big-Money Shoots Could Turn Havana into Hollywood Location


Above, House of Lies actors Don Cheadle and Josh Lawson sit at the bar counter in Bodeguita Del Medio during the filming of an episode in Havana, Cuba. Michael Weissenstein (AP) writes about how Cuba may (or may not) turn into a regular Hollywood location as projects such House of Lies and Fast and Furious film scenes in Havana, and assorted directors and actors take an interest in the island.

The producers of Showtime’s dark comedy House of Lies had $3 million and a mission: Shoot the first episode of scripted American television in Cuba in more than half a century. With less than a week to shoot the entire fifth-season finale on the chaotic streets of central Havana, director Matthew Carnahan told his just-hired Cuban crew that they’d be skipping their full lunch break to make up time the first two days. “You know what? That’s not going to work,’” the assistant director responded. “You don’t do a walking lunch here.” The full lunch breaks got taken. And the shoot starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell wrapped up last week as part of a once-unimaginable surge of interest that could transform communist Cuba into a regular Hollywood location or fade rapidly due to the difficulty of working on the island.

A year after Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama declared detente, the mega-franchise Fast and Furious is awaiting U.S. and Cuban permission to shoot its eighth installment in Havana. There’s talk of a major U.S. car commercial shooting here. Actor Ethan Hawke said he wants to make a film in Cuba. Papa, an Ernest Hemingway biopic approved before detente was announced, premiered in Havana in December.

Until recently, Hollywood shooting in Cuba would have likely set off outrage among anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who say trade with Cuba feeds repression on the island.

The productions coming to Havana this year say White House staff have explicitly encouraged them as part of Obama’s new warming with Cuba. Preparing for anger in Miami was never part of the planning.

“It just didn’t factor into it,” Showtime president David Nevins said as he watched the shooting in Old Havana last week. “We’re slowly renewing relations and I think this show and the attitude that you’ll see within the show towards what’s going on with Cuba I think reflects where mainstream America is right now.”

Producers of House of Lies and other productions shot in Cuba said the 55-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba posed the primary obstacle to U.S. entertainment companies’ hopes to turn the island into a tropical backdrop. But particularly Cuban difficulties could also prevent U.S. productions from regularly working on the island.

“There’s a lot of stuff coming here,” Carnahan said. “Whether Cuba becomes a viable location on a regular ongoing basis rather than a novelty is up to both countries.”

The Cuban government demands script approval, only accepting productions that put the country in a good light. Charter flights from the U.S. remain unreliable, although regularly scheduled flights are slated to start soon. [. . .]

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